Folkestone in Kent was the third last place I’d be visiting on my journey all around England. I decided to go after running a poetry workshop for an organisation called Migrant Help.
Migrant Help is a charity that offers support to refugees and asylum seekers. While I was working with some of their employees, I met Jitka, the head of communications, and we got talking about me knocking on doors and writing poems for strangers.
“Maybe you could visit some of the Syrian families we take care of,” she suggested. It seemed like a good fit.
As usual, the only question I wanted to ask was: ‘What is important to you?’ I wondered how these people’s experiences might shape their responses. As well as this, in a country that feels increasingly hostile towards migrants, I was interested in seeing what life in the UK was really like for them. 3 days before I went, Britain left the EU. The country, to me at least, had never felt less welcoming.
The night before my visit, I checked into a B&B down the road in Dover. I thought about all the people who’ve left, or caught their first glimpse of the country from this spot, the beginning and the end of so many journeys.
Captain’s Log 05/02/20 09:26
I’m inside Migrant Help’s headquarters in Dover. I head down a hallway and into an office, where I’m greeted by Dan, who is a case worker, and Eklas, an Arabic interpreter.
Over a cup of tea, Dan explains a bit more about what they do here.
“As soon as they arrive in the country, we arrange accommodation, set up energy suppliers, help with applications- anything we can to give them the best start.” He tells me he’s already found 3 families who are up for getting involved today. “They’re looking forward to it,” he adds.
After we’ve ran over the plan, the three of us head downstairs, hop in Dan’s car and start the 15 minute drive to Folkestone. As we pass through the countryside, we stop at the top of a hill that looks out over the ocean. The sun is out, the water is clear blue and, in the distance, you can make out the famous white cliffs. It seems like a peaceful place to live.
Dan pulls into a leafy terraced street of red brick houses. He shows us to a gate and me and Eklas follow him up the path. I can see a man waving from the window.
We step into a living room with red wallpaper and a cream carpet. Sitting around a coffee table, I meet a woman in a khaki green khimar and a man in a white polo-neck shirt, who looks a bit like George Clooney. This is Leila and Saad.
After we’ve said hello, I perch on a sofa next to Eklas and explain what I’m here for, pausing to let her translate. I’ve never worked with an interpreter before. It feels a bit strange. I do my introductory poem,* and learn that ‘Door-to-Door’ in Arabic is ‘Albab ‘iilaa Albab’.
I explain that the poem can be about anything that is important to them. Without pausing, Leila replies.
“My life has been very hard.” She reaches into a drawer and pulls out a photo. It shows two children, sitting on a pile of rubble. “This was my home,” she says.
Leila tells me they were visiting her auntie when the bombs started falling. When they got back and found their house destroyed, they fled. With no car and no public transport, her and Saad walked 130 kilometers across the border to Iraq, carrying their children and the last of their possessions.
When they arrived, they found refuge in a shack with a tarpaulin roof and lived there for 4 years. During this time, Leila got very sick.
“One day, I was alone with my son and I was too weak to feed him,” she tells me. “He was crying. I will never forget this.” It is utterly heartbreaking to hear.
She tells me it’s been nearly a year to the day since they came to the UK, as part of a UN program of resettlement.
“People here are very kind,” she says. “We feel safe and relaxed. But we still worry about our family.”
It’s been an hour and we need to go, we’ve arranged to make another visit soon. I explain the plan to deliver the poem in a few weeks, then say goodbye to Leila and Saad. Leila waves to us from the door as we head back down the path.
The three of us get into the car in silence. After a few minutes, we get talking about the relationship the Migrant Help staff have with the service users.
“When I first started,” Dan tells me. “I found myself worrying about the families non-stop, about every little thing.” Eklas agrees.
“If an application for some benefits is rejected, you feel like you’ve personally failed them.”
We drive for 10 minutes, zigzagging through streets, ’til we stop at another row of terraces. Dan knocks on a door but there’s no answer. A moment later, a car pulls up next to us. A lady steps out in a black khimar with silver sparkles on, followed by her teenage daughter and a man in a woolly jumper with a big smile.
“Sorry, we were at B&Q,” he tells me.
This is Hasan, his wife Reem, and his daughter Nour. They invite me into the living room, where there’s a picture of a red daisy on the wall and a cabinet filled with pretty little cups and saucers. Before we chat, Reem and Nour insist on making us some Arabic coffee, as well as putting out dates, seeds, sweets, biscuits, crisps, and various other treats, all arranged neatly on a lace tablecloth.
I do my poem and ask them what’s important. Hasan and Nour both speak fluent English, and Reem is fairly fluent too, so Eklas only has to translate the odd sentence. Once I’ve finished, there is a long pause. Eventually, Reem takes the plunge.
“The most important thing is the children,” she says. “That they can achieve their goals.”
Nour explains that it wasn’t always easy to do this. When the war started, her parents went to Lebanon. But she stayed in Syria, determined to finish school.
“Sometimes there were bombs and fighting,” she tells me. “I felt afraid, but I wanted to complete my studies.” However, after 3 years of this, it had become too dangerous, and she went to join her parents.
In Lebanon, it was much more difficult to get an education.
“Classes were expensive,” Hasan says. “And the people hate Syrians.” He tells me that Nour couldn’t walk down the street on her own without having abuse shouted at her.
“When we got the chance to travel to the UK, I was very very happy,” Nour says. She’s at college at the minute, and tells me she’s just applied for a course in architecture at the University of Kent. She gets out her phone and shows me a picture of one of the oldest mosques in Damascus, explaining her plans to mix this kind of architecture with more modern styles.
The future feels very bright for this family. Hasan tells me that, in general, life in the UK is happy.
“Our English neighbours are very helpful. The government, school, college, everybody. In this country, nothing is impossible.”
It’s time to head off. I make plans for the delivery and say goodbye.
“It’s nice to meet an English poet,” Nour tells me. “I look forward to hearing the poem.”
We take a 5 minute ride to the final family. This time, we pull into the drive of a semi-detached house with a garden and neat hedges. We’re greeted at the door by a toddler who’s pressing his face against the glass, followed by an elderly woman who welcomes us in.
We walk down a hallway into a long living room, with cream walls and a wooden cuckoo clock. I meet another woman with curly, shoulder length hair, and a man in a multicoloured t-shirt. This is Shirin and her husband Ahmed. The lady who greeted us at the door is Ahmed’s mother and the toddler is their son, Rafad.
Shirin brings us some coffee and we sit down to talk. I ask them what’s important. Ahmed replies immediately.
“Before we travelled to the UK, our son Ali had a health problem.” He tells me that, when the war started, they moved to the countryside where it would be safer. But, when Ali was 8 months old, they noticed there was something wrong. Unable to get him to a hospital in Syria, they moved to Turkey.
In Turkey, the doctors couldn’t figure out what the problem was. The family would call an ambulance, Ali would be rushed into hospital, and then he would be sent home. This went on for 2 years. At one point, Shirin had to spend 7 months in quarantine with him and Ali nearly died.
“No one else was allowed in,” she says. “Not even Ahmed.”
Eventually, Ali was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors told them he needed stem cell treatment urgently and it was going to cost 100,000 dollars. As recently arrived refugees, there was absolutely no way Ahmed and Shirin could afford this.
In desperation, they put their story on a charity’s website. Unbelievably, within a month, the full amount had been donated by one person. To this day, Shirin and Ahmed still don’t know that person’s name, what they look like, or where they come from. It was completely anonymous.
“I felt like I had a new life,” Ahmed says.
Now 7 years old, Ali is in good physical health, although his condition has left him with a severe learning disability. But Shirin tells me that he’s enjoying school and is, in her own words, ‘very cheeky’.
“It’s not easy to look after him,” she says. “But I’d do anything for Ali. Anything.” Having got him out of a warzone, helped him recover from a life-threatening illness, and secured him a safe passage to the UK, I don’t doubt that for a second.
Ahmed needs to pick up Ali from school. It feels like the right time to leave. I thank both him and Shirin for being involved and head for the door, waving to the rest of the family on my way out.
Dan drops me off at the nearest station. 15 minutes later, I’m on a train heading back to Newcastle. It feels sudden. As we pull away, I think about the stories I’ve heard today. I can’t even begin to understand what these families have been through. Their efforts to escape the conflict and build a better life for themselves are nothing less than superhuman.
It seems telling that the war has come up in each conversation. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it feels painfully clear to me how much this has effected, and continues to effect, every element of these people’s lives.
The one glimmer of hope seems to be that everyone I’ve spoken to feels safe and has found refuge here. A part of me was braced for stories of hostility. Instead, I’ve met families who feel comfortable, have supportive neighbours, and have the opportunities they need to achieve what they want.
I know this is only the tip of the iceberg, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who desperately need this kind of support. But to have seen and heard everything I have today, I feel thankful that these families got the help they needed.
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and my hair could be much neater,
but this could be worse,
I could be here to check your meter.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping, but less frightening,
and I’m standing here to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem
or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe you’re very angry
from a recent council fine.
Maybe you dropped your smart phone
and it fell down the toilet,
I don’t know, I can’t decide for you
‘cos that would spoil it.
So thanks for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose,
don’t walk away, don’t be nervous,
the Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.
With special thanks to all of the staff at Migrant Help.